Not a staycation: Isolating at home affects our mental health (and what to do)

As a pediatrician and a parent navigating this pandemic, I worry sometimes that an important point gets lost in the midst of all the helpful posts about things to do with your children in cramped spaces, homeschooling, and other tips for managing the current reality:

This is bad for the mental health of each and every one of us.

Let’s review: We were going about our business as usual and suddenly a possibly deadly virus appeared and shut down life as we knew it. School and daycare closed, and our children were home without any structure or activity except what we create or enforce. Every trip out of the house became treacherous. For those who can’t work from home, work either became dangerous or it disappeared, taking income with it. Supplies became precarious. Interactions with anyone outside our home became almost entirely virtual or nonexistent.

There is no way that we can live this without anxiety and sadness — and no way that our children can live it without anxiety and sadness. We all need to do our best, sure, but it’s important that we acknowledge that we are feeling strange and bad, that our kids are too, and this can’t help but affect how we all behave. We have to take care of ourselves in a different way, being proactive about our mental health.

Put family self-care first when navigating this tough time

Keep to a schedule — but be realistic. Having a daily schedule is important, especially for children, and you should make one and stick to it. However, don’t get too ambitious. If you have school-age children, make sure they have enough time allotted to get their work done (this will vary from child to child), but don’t feel obligated to make it as long as they would have been in school — or have the hours match school hours (if your children have never been early morning people, why force it now?). If your child is not able to get the work done, and you’ve reached out to the school and tried everything they suggested, cut both of you some slack; most of us parents are not trained teachers, and we’ll figure out how to fix it all when this is over. On the flip side, if your children are interested in reading great literature, learning a new language, or otherwise gaining extra knowledge and skills during this time, go for it — but don’t force it. Keep the bar low.

Schedule self-care. All family members should have time set aside to do what makes them happy. Be deliberate about that.

Schedule fun. Bake cookies, play a game, be silly, make messes. Be deliberate about that, too.

Make sure everyone gets enough sleep — and that they stay on a regular sleep schedule. Shut off the screens in the evening, stop the video games, and set an alarm clock in the morning. Inadequate or irregular sleep will make everything worse.

Make exercise a priority. Exercise makes all the difference for our physical and mental health. If you can go outside safely, do that; take a daily family walk, for example. If you can’t get outside, have a daily dance party. Do yoga — it doesn’t take up much space, and helps with stress. There are plenty of videos out there to show you how.

Use tech to connect with people. Set time aside every day to call or FaceTime people — maybe some friends and family you have lost contact with over the years (more people are home now!). Set up virtual play dates and other virtual gatherings.

Put yourself on a media diet. Yes, we need to keep abreast of the news. But obsessively clicking on links will only make you more anxious.

Stress kindness and be patient. We all get cranky and mean when we are anxious and sad. This situation is likely to bring out our bad sides. Have house rules on how you treat each other. Take a breath and try to redirect yourself before you yell at your kid or snap at your partner (or worse). If just a breath won’t do it, take a moment. Walk away.

Understand that the usual stress management strategies might not work. These are extraordinary times, and the things that you usually do to help yourself or your children may not be enough. Call your doctor or your child’s doctor; they know you and your situation best and can help.

Resources for family self-care

There are also resources that can help, such as:

It’s especially important that you reach out if you are feeling like you might hurt yourself or someone else. But don’t wait for that. Make changes, and ask for help if you need it, right now.

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